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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Given the day ....

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A nice sense of accomplishment

It's a nice fall day in Southern California, a little rain overnight and mixed clouds and sunshine this morning. Sitting at my desk in front of the open patio door I just finished proofreading the printed pages for The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, which left me with a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

As you all know, I've been deep into researching and writing Detroit: A Biography, which has become (as you might imagine) an all-consuming project. I haven't read or thought much about The Fear Within in months as it has worked its slow way through the pre-publishing process. So it was with a fresh eye that I went through the page proofs over the past couple of days. And you know what? It's not a bad bit of work (there are a few passages for which I wouldn't mind a do-over, but it's a bit late for that now).

Can't wait for you all to be able to read it in March. Read More 
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On 'The Cultures of War'

One of the finalists in the current crop of National Book Award contenders is John W. Dower's The Cultures of War, which I was lucky enough to review this weekend for the Los Angeles Times.

Dower, a Pulitzer-winner for his earlier work examining Japan in the wake of World War Two, has put together a compelling set of case studies about what happens when a nation plans for war -- and the inevitability of it happening. He makes the case that the U.S. reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks more closely resembled the Japanese thinking that led up to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor than to the American response. In both cases, the ensuing wars were conscious choices, rather than defensive acts.

One of the more chilling bits is Dower's depiction of the bomb-makers in the Manhattan Project and their rush to complete their work before Japan decided to surrender. They were positively itching to use the "device," as they called it, to measure its impact, a sordid example of the dehumanization that comes with war. In another vein, policy decisions were made to rain firebombs on Japanese and German cities, intentionally targeting civilian neighborhoods, which amounts to acts of terror.

I'll leave the argument of whether those were the proper policy decisions within the context of their time to others. But the decisions by government, not just military, officials do provide further evidence that not all the savagery of war happens on the battlefield. Read More 
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Detroit, and a little labor history

So we had our panel chat yesterday at the North American Labor History Conference, looking at the Detroit newspaper strike some 15 years after the fact. It was two hours, and while that seems long it zipped by quickly, and we barely scratched the surface. A friend taped the session and I'll post a link to the video once it's online.

If you're not familiar with it, the Detroit newspaper strike lasted five and a half years (19 months of strike, the rest as a lockout), cost the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press' corporate parents, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, more than $300 million, and was such a divisive event that Detroit, in many ways, has yet to recover from it. But it also helped create a new generation of community activists and local labor leaders (and set in motion the events that moved my family to Los Angeles after 18 months of walking the picket line).

The title of the panel, "Lessons and Legacies," aptly captured what we were trying to get at. The genesis of the panel was my hope that sufficient time has past for the hottest flames of passion to have died down so we can have reasonable conversations about what happened, and why. As it turns out there's still a lot of passion, and pain, judging by the audience comments (about 50 people showed up). I conceived of this panel as something of a conversation starter, and I'm hoping it will spur more discussions and dissections of the strike, including union leaders, activists and even management people, so we can get a better sense of what transpired. And what we can learn from it.

And lessons were learned, both good and bad. The upshot: Workers have to take responsibility for their own fates, even when represented by a union. And without real solidarity -- not, as one of the panelists, waving a sign and singing a song -- little can be gained.

Thanks to the panelists: Steve Babson, longtime professor in Wayne State’s Labor Studies Center (and an active strike supporter); Chris Rhomberg, a Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology at Fordham University in the Bronx, who is working on a book about the strike; and Donald Boggs, former president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO from 2000 to 2006, who weighed in on the impact of the strike on Detroit labor, and the community at large.

And beyond the weighty issues, it was great seeing and catching up with old friends. And Daymon Hartley brought in an array of photographs he took during the strike, many of which can be found at his websiteRead More 
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The housing collapse, Mozilo and justice averted

For the past couple of days the story of Angelo Mozilo's rise and fall -- and the nation's economy along with it -- has been nagging at the back of my mind (Facebook friends already saw an earlier post about this). Thealign="left"> Sunday New York Times recapped the case against Mozilo, one of the founders and a propelling force in the now-defunct Countrywide Financial, which rode toxic mortgages to massive profits before it fell apart.

The story portrays a CEO who knew his company was pursuing policies that not only put the firm at risk, but also imperiled the financial well-being of the people to whom it was giving mortgages. In internal emails Mozilo expressed his fear about the practices to his top deputies.

Rather than halting the practices, Mozilo set up an auto-sell program for his personal shares of Countrywide, so while he was publicly pushing a rosy view of Countrywide's financial health and future, in private he was cashing in while there was still money to be had.

Where this moves from crass to appalling is the Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil charges against Mozilo accusing him, among other things, of pocketing $140 million in illicit gains from those insider deals. The settlement? He agreed to pay $67.5 million, of which Bank of America, which bought Countrywide as it collapsed, is paying $20 million (and covering Mozilo's legal bills). You'd think the BofA stockholders would be outraged. Even though  Read More 
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My personal recession

I wrote this a bit ago and submitted it to a few places to see if someone might be interested in publishing it. The short answer: No (though I did have one overture that would have involved recasting the piece, which I didn't feel like doing). But I think it's worth getting it out there anyway. So here it is:

More than two years ago an email popped up from the managing editor of the Los Angles Times, a couple of rungs above my editor, asking if I was available for a chat. I was working from home that morning, part of the team covering the 2008 presidential election, so sent him my phone number. But I already sensed what we’d be talking about. A half-hour later I was out of a job, effective in late September 2008, and out of newspapers after some 30 years. The Great Recession – the worst since World War II – was suddenly my personal recession.

There have been some adjustments as I’ve morphed from a career newspaper staff writer into my own “brand” as a freelance journalist, author and part-time college instructor. My wife says I seem less stressed – losing daily deadlines will do that. But other, less visible strains have moved in. It took a while to stop swearing softly when Facebook friends moaned about the encroaching start of the workweek. Impulse buys are smothered before they can rise. We’re hoarding cash like survivalists save cans of soup, and college options for our two sons have gone decidedly down market.

Yet I’ve been luckier than others. With my wife’s job as a first grade teacher we’ve been able to stay afloat (we bought our house before the housing bubble so are okay there). But the California state budget crisis has meant layoffs and other cutbacks in public education, too. This year she faces furlough days with an 8% cut in wages, and a classroom once capped at 20 students is nudging toward 30 (a significant hike when dealing with the noise and energy of 5- and 6-year olds). We still have health coverage with a manageable co-pay thanks to her union contract but have set aside virtually nothing for retirement since my job evaporated. Later, I tell myself, we Read More 
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On Chile, rescued miners and the threshhold of heroism

Like countless others, I've been riveted by the live scenes from Chile as the trapped miners emerge, one by one, after an incomprehensibly long and close brush with death. It's a fascinating story of luck, perserverance, and survival by the miners, and dogged persistence by those above ground scrambling to rescue them.

align="left">But it was also an intriguing example of media, and image control. The usual throngs of reporters and cameras were kept at bay, and the Chilean government handled the video and audio feeds. From thousands of miles and several time zones away, we were able to sit in our living room and watch the rescue unfold, from the camera in the mine itself to the ground-level reunions with families and rescuers, to the wheeling away of the gurneys (and the omnipresent Chilean flag, like a company logo).

But you have to wonder what would have happened had the rescue failed (and I fully recognize it still might; miners continue to be pulled through that long drill hole as I write this)? Would the Chilean government have kept that feed live? Or would a disaster have led them to pull the plug? And this isn't ghoulish speculation: A free press is only as free as its access to news events. The rescuers were well-served keeping the media throng at a distance, but leaving the pool feed in the hands of the government involves too much opportunity for censorship. Better to have let the media set up their own pool feed, with no government overseer's hand on the plug. And one of the telling moments of the age: The miners apparently requested they receive media training before they face journalists.

One final thought: Again in a dramatic moment, we get lots of TV reporters tossing around the word "hero" like a pronoun for "trapped miner." Maybe I'm becoming too curmudgeonly, but surviving to me doesn't equal heroism. Same for the Americans who successfully drilled the rescue shaft (and plaudits for their decision to decamp for Santiago by the time the rescue began, leaving the limelight for the miners). The drillers did a tremendous job under trying circumstances, but does that earn the mantle of hero? The miners were brave, resilient and resourceful, especially as evidenced by their ability to self-organize for mutual benefit. As for the drillers, doing their jobs well should be an expectation, not an act of heroism.

So I'm wondering, what should be the hurdle for declaring heroism? If it's simply surviving under difficult, life-threatening circumstances, I know a lot of everyday people who would qualify. Same for those who do their jobs well in a difficult environment, and under extreme pressure. So it has me thinking about that old Joe Jackson song, "Real Men," but with a different lyric: What's a hero now? What's a hero mean?  Read More 
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New books by old friends

There are a couple of books that landed here recently, both by friends, that I'm looking forward to diving into once the current stack clears (writing history involves reading history, and my stack of "to-reads" is rather forbidding).

align="left">First is Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, by former LA Times colleague Judy Pasternak. The book expands on her wonderful series for the LA Times on the radioactive legacy of uranium mining on the Southwest. The cover illustration tells it all: A skull drawn with yellow sands.

align="right">The second is Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams, a anthology of writing on work edited by my old Detroit friend -- and tireless award-winning advocate for poetry and writing -- M.L. Liebler. There are pieces, poetry and lyrics from Amiri Baraka to Woody Guthrie to Lolita Hernandez to Walt Whitman.

Incidentally, I'll be joining M.L. for a reading Friday, October 22, as part of the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit. The plan, I think, is for me to read from The Fear Within, which will be the first public airing of the book, due out this coming March. The gig will be in the Walter P. Reuther Library on Cass. Read More 
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